the corner office

a blog, by Colin Pretorius

Classical Music

I've recently started listening to more classical music, especially piano works. I don't think I've bought any classical CDs since the 90s and I'd forgotten the hazards of doing so.

If you've bought a lot of classical music, you probably know what I mean. Sooner or later you'll start talking to an Enthusiast. You may casually declare an intention to acquire Beethoven's 5th Symphony, say. But then will come that glint in the Enthusiast's eye, and you'll get asked the question you hadn't thought needed asking: "which one?" And you sort of know that "the one with violins...?" isn't the kind of answer you ought to be giving.

Thus may you get your gentle introduction to buying classical music. You will learn that one does not simply march into a CD store and buy a copy of Beethoven's 5th. There are all sorts of things to decide along the way. Darned thing's been recorded hundreds of times. Which conductor? Which orchestra? Which performance? And symphonies are easy. If it's a concerto you're after, there's the biggest complication of all - which soloist? Where and when?

And the truth is, performances really can sound very different. It's a personal thing, but choosing a 'good' performance is worth doing. Some of the best versions are going to be completely different listening experiences compared to a half-arsed rendition by the Dullsville Philharmonic on some exotic-sounding budget record label. Although sometimes the LSO recording from '97 might actually be quite crap, and the Dullsville Philharmonic might have been spectacularly on form, and they're an excellent choice assuming you're not too much of a snob.

Which to choose? In the olden days you'd either just not bother and get the cheapest version on the shelves or the one with the most interesting cover but knowing deep down that you're possibly Missing Out, or rely on word of mouth (the Enthusiast will probably have given you a pointers, and at the store something might trigger a memory about von Karajan invariably being a safe bet), or read recommendations from the thick and well-thumbed CD book that was always plonked down somewhere in the classical section of your local CD store, and maybe go through the unholy schlep of listening to a few versions in-store, which was usually such a hassle with queues and surly assistants and broken headphones that Missing Out didn't seem like such a bad option after all.

Now, the world has changed. Now, there's Spotify and YouTube. On the up side, you can actually sample the various recordings and decide which one you like most. On the down side, your choice is no longer just one of a few versions in stock on the shelves, it's closer to dozens. And it's no longer just recordings. You've also got all the live performances, and there are many, many more of them.

Like Rachmaninov's Piano Concertos? You're more spoiled for choice than ever, but if you're prone to getting caught up in things, you can go down a rabbit hole and not come out for months.

{2018.07.01 08:01}



We returned recently from a holiday in Sicily. It was our first visit to the Mediterranean. Nicer than the Indian Ocean, assuming you place greater store in being able to see what's floating around you and less store in big waves.

Also Sicily

My favourite things about Sicily: the beautiful sea, architecture and history and ice cream for breakfast. OK, not exactly ice cream, but close enough. The owners of our villa were lovely people, and came by almost every morning with granita and pastries from the local bakery. We wondered if they owned the bakery, but since the boys were too fussy to try most of the pastries, we had to eat theirs too and had no reason to ever actually visit the bakery to find out.

Also, I never thought I'd have reason to say something like this, but Sicilian McDonalds is much fresher and nicer than British McDonalds.

Less favourite things: driving on the wrong (that is to say, right) side of the road. Aloes. Antiquated plumbing. Oppressive heat and a lot of poverty and sand getting in everywhere. Also, getting back to the UK and discovering that the majority my photos were tilted slightly to the right. Wtf.

I had a great time though, doing mostly what I'd intended to do: enjoy the sea, sleep a lot, eat lots of salami and cheese on strange bread, washed down by local plonk.

The boys had a great time, too, especially on the beach. It's amusing how they, like most kids today, get sent out lathered in suntan lotion with paranoid parents making sure they're never far away our out of reach in the water. In contrast when we were young our beach holidays involved being let loose after a couple of Coppertone tablets and our parents not for second doubting that we'd emerge from the sea or return up the beach after a couple of hours, alive and intact.

Also, we didn't get dragged off to see cathedrals.

{2018.06.16 22:57}

What About The Breakfast Club?

A thoughtful article by Molly Ringwald on revisiting 80's John Hughes movies in light of the #MeToo movement.

How are we meant to feel about art that we both love and oppose? What if we are in the unusual position of having helped create it? Erasing history is a dangerous road when it comes to art - change is essential, but so, too, is remembering the past, in all of its transgression and barbarism, so that we may properly gauge how far we have come, and also how far we still need to go.

You could watch (and enjoy) movies of the 60s and 50s and earlier and see isms and write them off as being from 'a different time', but the 80s wasn't 'a different time' for people my age. It was our contemporary culture. And it wasn't art to us, it wasn't an abstract thing, it was just entertainment. That somehow makes it a bit different. Now, if we judge it, we judge ourselves.

And of course... we can't really imagine what people 30 years hence will be thinking of movies made now.

{2018.06.01 10:32}

Worrying About Climate Change

The worst effects of climate change may not be felt for centuries. So how should we think about it now?:

The basis for arguing for action on climate change is the belief that we have a moral responsibility to people in the future. But this is asking one group of people to make wrenching changes to help a completely different set of people to whom they have no tangible connection. Indeed, this other set of people doesn’t exist. There is no way to know what those hypothetical future people will want.

The premise is that by most models, we'll all be long dead by the time climate change is truly catastrophic for humanity. Our descendants won't know or care who we are. If you could go back 300 years, what would you ask people to sacrifice for us?

I find this interesting. The article isn't saying we shouldn't care, just asking why do we care? As an aside, and perhaps unsurprisingly, our actions ("revealed preference", as economists call it) suggest that we don't care about it as much as we say we do, but to the extent that we do, one possible explanation is that the very abstract notion of 'survival of the species' is actually important to us.

I think one flaw in the question though, is that the premise is weak: we can see climate change affecting the world now, and we can see enough of it to worry that people closer to us (our older selves, children etc) will be affected by it. And even if the consequences were further away, the scary part would be finding out that we've reached a point of no return in our lifetimes. That'd be a lot of guilt to deal with.

{2018.04.20 23:41}


I made the mistake of looking it up and seeing in Wikipedia that it was an enormous flop, so much so I thought "oh noes it was such a flop I will be too ashamed to admit that I enjoyed it". But that would be silly, as was the movie, and quite frankly I did enjoy it. Sure it was Ghostbusters meets MIB but not quite as classic in either dimension but we chuckled right through it. Maybe we don't get out enough.

Speaking of Mary Louise Parker, it reminds me we've also in past stretches watched RED and the sequel which I'm presuming was called RED2 (but not going to look it up in case it too was a flop), and I enjoyed them both, too. So there.

{2018.04.15 21:48}

Snow, Scotland and more snow

The Beast turned out to be beastly, with small doses of Snowmageddon all round. Normally this would be awesome and happiness would abound, but the Friday snow storm after my last blog post meant our planned Saturday trip to Scotland got derailed a little.

Fear of Death By Ice And Blizzards meant we almost didn't go. In the end, after a few hours of monitoring at the Control Center (a dozen browser tabs of weather reports, highway incident maps and traffic cams all the way up the country), and with a little reassurance from other people who said it'd be fine and that we weren't completely insane, we set off on Saturday afternoon. The roads turned out to be fine, we stayed over in a Premier Inn on the way which was a great adventure for the boys, and we finished off the trip on Sunday, treated to snow-covered Pennines with almost nobody else on the roads.

Scotland was stunning. We've been in the UK for 11 years, and this was the first time we'd made it to Scotland. It's fair to say we'd like to go back again and again. As much as other parts of the UK are beautiful, Scotland felt like a place apart. And we only got as far as Argyll. The snow also meant that our loch-side views were extra-special, with snow-covered hills and mountains in the distance.

We returned, had a quiet week, and then had a mini-Beast this weekend, with even more snow. I expect that I'm now done with snow reporting for the year.

{2018.03.21 19:20}

Beast From The East

If snow reports are what this blog expects, then the slab of freezing Siberian air which has currently laid itself down on these normally Westerly-windswept isles needs reporting.

So far nothing too deep, but it's forecast to be a heavy week.

{2018.02.26 22:02}

Recent Reading

At last writing I had discovered the joy of old books - digital style - and it continues.

However, 'recent reading' now spans something like 18 months. This post has been kicking around for nearly that long. I kept adding books, but not finishing my mini-reviews. Some are still unfinished, but the growing list was becoming a bit much, so too bad. Here goes:

  • Alexandre Dumas: Ten Years Later: the third of the Three Musketeer books after Twenty Years After (it gets confusing, and gets worse yet). Ten Years Later is itself normally split into three separate novels in English, being The Vicomte de Bragelonne (which is also another name for the whole three-novel book; oh yes), Louise de la Valliere, and ending with The Man in the Iron Mask. To make it more confusing these 3 books were sometimes split differently and published as five books. If you're looking for an optimal translation (cf. my previous post), stitching old scanned versions together becomes an unholy mess.

    There is fortunately an easier solution: don't bother. The swashbuckling adventure of The Three Musketeers peters out into court intrigues, half-hearted stabs at ever-more fantastical alternative histories which have nowhere to go, and hundreds upon hundreds of pages of nothing much happening, before a saddish (and unsatisfying) ending.

    A note on The Man in the Iron Mask. Movies have been made of the book because the fundamental idea of some dude locked away with a terrible and dangerous secret is intriguing. In the book, it's a tangential disappointment which isn't central to the story and has no hope of going anywhere, because as the end of the story approaches, Dumas' wiggle room shrinks more and more, and in the end he has no choice but to snap back to the actual history of France at the time. Pfff.

  • George Eliot: Middlemarch: apparently one of the greatest English novels. I was underwhelmed, and took ages to finish the book. The subtitle is A Study of Provincial Life; on this score it succeeds, perhaps. The book is, in essence, a collection of portraits of people's ups and downs in a small town, with the main arch being a love story which boils down to Victorian repression and hand-wringing in the drawing room. If either of the two frustrated lovers had just come out and said "I dig you so!" in the first few chapters, the book would have been a lot shorter.

  • Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone: within a few chapters, Wilkie Collins was firmly my favourite Victorian author. The Moonstone is a whodunnit (by some accounts, the first), with some hilarious writing, the ending a little flat but worth it just to soak up the story and characters. Note to self: read Robinson Crusoe.

  • Charles Dickens: A Tale Of Two Cities: Best of times, worst of times and all that. The great Charles Dickens, but does anyone actually read his books? My bookshelves hold plenty of Dickens novels which I've never read. I decided to remedy that: albeit with an electronic version.

    My verdict: I can see why he's seen as a great novelist. Some of the characterisations are just masterful. With characters like Sydney Carton, Dickens takes a long pointy finger, digs it deep into your chest and twists everything around. Elsewhere, I found myself chuckling out loud on the train with some of the scenes involving Jerry Cruncher and his night time endeavours.

    Having said that: bleak, miserable, dark, sad, gloomy, bleak. Have I mentioned bleak? Very bleak. I'm compelled to read more of his novels, but about one a year is as much as I have strength for.

  • Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: after A Tale of Two Cities, I thought it was high time for some American levity. My recollection of Huckleberry Finn was bare feet and a Southern accent in some grainy TV show when I was a child.

    That's sort of accurate but hardly portrays the actual books. The Tom Sawyer novel, the first, isn't great, funnyish in places. Tom Sawyer's sheer orthogonality to world he was growing up in made it worth the read. Huckeberry Finn, the second novel, is more of a travel story, if you will, with an escaped slave, and a little more adventure and political commentary of the time.

    Which gets me to the hardest part of the novels: the racism. A few pages into Tom Sawyer, and I found myself reading something and thinking "woah, that's a bit heavy". This is Mark Twain, great American novelist? I started the books unaware that they were so controversial. Wikipedia put me right. You can't read novels from that far back without being exposed to the prejudices of the time, but there's prejudice, and there's prejudice. I know there are arguments about Twain using the racism to make the point, but that's not how I perceived it (contrasting to say, Herman Charles Bosman in South African literature). Twain's writing takes it all to a whole new level, I found it deeply uncomfortable.

  • Mark Twain: Tom Sawyer Abroad: a sequel to the above. Utter schlock. "Lions and tigers" in the Saharan desert. I saw mention that it was a parody. It is too rubbish to be even that. A waste of paper and ink, and my time.

  • Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White, Armadale, No Name: three more Collins novels, in a row. The Woman in White is a mystery novel, a real page-turner, the battle of wits between Marian and Count Fosco the highlight of the book. Armadale is a sort of ... what? Thriller? Suspense? Family drama? Great read. Finally, No Name makes a social statement about illegitimacy. Some tragedy, some revenge, and some memorable characters.

I've now read Collins' 'four great' novels. Will my estimation of him drop if I move on to his others?

  • Charles Dickens: Bleak House: didn't take my own advice to wait a while before tackling Dickens again. Started Bleak House some time last year. The first chapter was an incredible polemic against the British legal establishment, the bile, the derision, the invective was second to none. Brilliant! What writing! Then Chapter 2 ... bam. To earth with a thud. Profoundly sad. Why did I start this book, why, why?

    I progressed thereafter by a page or two a month for a few months, before picking it up again early this year, forcing myself to just crack on with it. Within a few chapters I was hooked, and I'd now have to rank Bleak House as one of my favourite novels. The prose, the characters, again, just masterful. A fair amount of tragedy, but not as depressing as A Tale Of Two Cities, and just a pleasure to read.

  • Elizabeth Gaskell: North and South: a romance, a likeable heroine, a "social novel". Deals with class and poverty and industrialisation in a way which is sympathetic, but open-minded and not at all preachy. You sort of know how it's going to end but it was still fun to see it all work out.

  • Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre: three Bronte sisters, all demanding their due. Anne, tick: I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall years ago, not the cheeriest of novels ever. Wuthering Heights, not read but seen it on TV a few times so know how that's all going to pan out, I'll read the book eventually anyway, and that'll be Emily taken care of. But for now, Charlotte.

Given her sisters' output, was bracing myself for some heavy going, and went from chapter to chapter waiting for things to go south, but they never did. Not breezy by any stretch, nasty people, nice people, no more than 'mild peril'. A bit too much Jesus for my liking, but I quite enjoyed it. Unless Wuthering Heights in novel form ends up having something which Wuthering Heights in TV form doesn't, Charlotte wins.

I've missed a few books, but these are the 'old' ones. The others will come separately.

{2018.02.08 22:14}

Christmas, Snow and New Year

It's late January, but never too late to mark the New Year. Christmas was a nice break, we had a bit more melt-almost-immediately snow in the days after Christmas (and - apparently - a dusting this past weekend - I was in Hull where there was more than a dusting, but that doesn't count for London reckoning), and now it's 2018.

I'm not nuts about 2018. Aesthetically, it's not a nice number, I liked the look of 2017 better. Oddly, I think 1918 looks better than 1917, but there is no reason to either preference, they're numbers dammit. I may also be a little negative because I know I'll mis-type the date for probably at least another month before muscle memory corrects itself, but then I didn't mind that so much a year ago.

I think that I am also less than enthused about the new calendar year because it's 2018, and we are very close to the end of this decade (3 years away, I hasten to note, not 2, but still). Did I feel the same in 2008? I probably did. We will soon be in the Twenties again, but with worse architecture.

Also, 2018 marks a century since the end of World War 1. Another important event in the century I was born into, and which shaped me, and the world I grew up in, will have happened over a century ago. It's a reminder of mortality, I guess. The centenaries will keep coming, and then I won't be around to see them anymore.

Anyhow, enough of that. Happy 2018!

{2018.01.23 16:47}

Snow Report 2017

I was remiss in January of this year and didn't blog about the snow we had. Rather late than never: we had some snow in January. And a hint more in December 2016, as I recall. Disappointing, as has become the norm: some heavy dustings, enough for a meagre snowman and nothing since.

This year, pretty much the same, without the snowmen. We had some snow yesterday - falling pretty heavily, which was really nice, but not sticking around, not the kind of stuff you trudge through thinking "I love snow", just the kind that turns to mud on the ground and leaves your jeans permanently mud-splattered and you thinking "is this it?".

I live in hope.

{2017.12.11 22:51}

Getting Things Done I

For years, every January sees a (broken) resolution about doing All Of The Things. Then come November (my birthday month), when I write my 'Reflections on Turning X' (which I like to do), it invariably has a gripe about how I wish I was on top of All Of The Things.

This is November, and the gripe was weighing on me this year as much as ever. So to get on top of All Of The Things, I started using Trello and bought Getting Things Done, by David Allen. It was first recommended to me nearly 14 years ago, and I've seen it mentioned a number of times since.

I've started reading it, and so far rather like it. The book describes a process for dealing with, well, All Of The Things. The main thrust of which is that you need to 'capture' everything you need to do or are thinking about, by writing it down, getting it on paper or into an In Tray. Then you 'clarify', which boils down to making an up-front decision about what to do about something, generally a 'next action', or just filing it or throwing it out, and then you do some organising and review everything regularly and yadda yadda. The latter part of that is rather vague, but that's because I'm still in the early stages of the book.

The capturing is the bit I'm most caught up in at the moment. The book's promise (premise, too) is that by getting everything out of your head and on paper, you begin to relax more because you know you have it written down and have a system that's going to take care of it. But it has to be everything, for your mind to trust it.

I started capturing, but at first it was anything but relaxing. Instead, it was as if I'd opened up a floodgate, and allowed a zillion repressed thoughts and ideas and worries to come out and play. I had insomnia for a couple of nights - I'd wake up in wee hours and start thinking about things, and "I really should write down..." (which isn't so easy at 3 in the morning in the dark with kids who bounce out of bed ready for the day at the slightest hint of parents waking up). Within about 5 days I'd filled up 16 pages of TODOs in my little notebook.

But then a funny thing happened. Only 2 new items made it to my list today. After nearly a week since I started, I can't think of more stuff to capture. And what's more, I've probably knocked off more small tasks in the past few days than I had all month. Regardless, if it accomplishes nothing other than me being more relaxed about the things I'm not doing, then that's better than before.

{2017.11.22 21:42}

Boys' Weekend

Ronwen's away for a long weekend, so it's a boys' weekend at home. Today is putting-off-doing-the-DIY and pizza and halloween chocolate mini-rolls. In other words, pretty much the same as if Mom were home but with a bit more "I want moooooommy" from time to time.

One small consolation for being at home without my dearest wife is that I get to sleep with the bedroom curtains open. On Thursday night that meant waking up during the night with heavy rain against our bedroom window.

I love the experience. It reminds me of one of my res rooms when I was university. My bed was right next to the window during what turned out to be a really wet summer, and I would regularly be woken up during storms with rain hammering against the glass right next to me.

The difference being that in the carefree days of being an idle student, I'd just go 'aaaaaaah I love rain' and roll over and go back to sleep, whereas on Thursday night I drifted off to sleep again thinking "dammit, I really need to fix the roof of the garden shed."

{2017.10.21 11:57}


I went to Budapest this past weekend. It's a beautiful city.

That is only sort of tangentially what this post is about.

Architecturally, Budapest is not London, but shopping-wise, it boasts many of the same retailers. And so you get that strange experience of the familiar with the unfamiliar.

The thing that tickled me the most, though, was that the hotel restaurant had Rama margarine, same logo and everything. What had hitherto felt like a quintessentially South African thing actually turns out to have been just another Unilever brand, kicking around in Germany for nearly a century, and available in over 96 countries.

At least we have Ouma.

{2017.09.15 22:16}

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